Thursday, May 04, 2006

Westlife... bloody successful, ain't they?

Ah, the 'Loife. I live it. I love it. I'd breath it, eat it and drink it if it could be crushed into little bite-sized chunks or vaporised so it could fit through my trachea.

So, what is it? Why, tis Westlife! The rootin'-est, tootin'-est manband in the West! (of Ireland)

Westlife were originally formed as IOYou in April of 1998, when three school friends (Shane Filan, Mark Feehily, and Kian Egan) formed a boyband with three other schoolmates in their home town of Sligo. Sligo, not well known for its raging nightlife or, in fact, anything not involving sheep, is located in the northwest of Ireland, the capital of county Sligo (or Sligeach, if Gaelic floats your boat). They quickly caught the eye of big-time pop manager Louis Walsh, the brain behind Boyzone, and IOYou began to tour with the Backstreet Boys and Boyzone in Ireland. Under the guidance of Walsh and BMG's Simon Cowell (yes, that Simon Cowell), the other three members were quickly dropped, and two new members auditioned in (Nicky Byrne and Bryan McFadden). After a brief affair with the name Westside, Westlife was born.

Their first single, Swear It Again, was released in April of 1999. The song, a delightfully syrupy ballad from the pens of pop writers extraordinaire Steve Mac and Wayne Hector, debuted at number one upon it's Irish release. It was then released in England in conjunction with the group's second Irish release, If I Let You Go, a midtempo track. Both singles went straight to number one.

But it was third single Flying Without Wings, released in November 1999, that gave Westlife their first real boost into superstardom. The soaring ballad, characterised by powerful vocals and the lack of a definable chorus, was an instant hit, securing the number one spot and Record Of The Year and becoming an instant pop classic. As well as this, it catapulted Westlife out of the teenybopper market and allowing them more mainstream pop appeal.

Their fourth single, released at Christmas, was the first number one single of the new millennium. It was a double a-side comprising of covers of ABBA's I Have A Dream, chosen by Simon Cowell after a successful performance on TV special ABBA-Mania, and Terry Jack's Seasons In The Sun, chosen by Louis Walsh. At the same time, first single Swear It Again was being promoted in the United States, to minor success.

Fifth single Fool Again also debuted at number one, but was a particular achievement as it made them the first ever band to have their first five singles debut at number one in the UK (take that, Spice Girls!). Shortly after, they broke their own record by securing a sixth consecutive number one, a cover of Phil Collin's Against All Odds released as a duet with Mariah Carey. The single was unsuceesful in the United States, but restored Carey's popularity in the UK and Ireland for a short while. Seventh single My Love was another record breaker, giving them their seventh consecutive single to debut at number one and their second Record Of The Year award.

However, their consecutive run was soon to be stomped upon. Stomped upon, drilled, and hammered by a little cartoon builder called Bob. Bob The Builder-mania had hit, and Westlife's Christmas single What Makes A Man debuted just behind the man in the yellow hardhat, a fact parodied in Westlife's subsequent cover of Billy Joel's Uptown Girl. The single was released to raise money for UK charity Comic Relief. The video was another success, portraying Westlife for the first time as individual people instead of as a singular boyband, and was injected with infectious fun. It was directed by Richard Curtis (Love Actually), and featured a number of telvision personalities, as well as Claudia Schiffer and Ioan Gruffudd, the latter of whom is part of a group of rich lads requesting Bob The Builder on the jukebox, only to be told "they haven't got it."

Tenth and eleventh singles Queen Of My Heart and World Of Our Own entered the chart at number one, the latter becoming an instant pop radio standard. But again their run was halted when eleventh single Bop Bop Baby, an uptempo track penned by Westlife members McFadden and Filan, debuted at number five and climbed no higher. In Westlife's history, this is still their lowest chart position, and was the beginning of a trend: number one's were much harder to come by.

Twelfth single Unbreakable was the first to be released off their fourth album, the similarly titled Unbreakable: The Greatest Hits. But the second single, a double a-side of Tonight and a cover of Cliff Richard's Miss You Nights reached only the number three spot, and no third single was released from the six new tracks on the album.

Rumours spread that the group was breaking up, that the succession of number ones was at an end and that no more singles would be forthcoming. This was immediately rubbished, the band stating that they had no intentions of splitting up as long as they were still happy and the fans still wanted them. These protestations were ignored by the media. Everybody knew what happened when a boyband released a Greatest Hits: it was the beginning of the end.

But they were quickly proven wrong. For the next year brought the release of fifth album Turnaround, a more upbeat collection of pop songs that still retained the original Westlife flavour of romantic ballads and standard covers. Three successful singles were released: Mandy, a Barry Manilow cover that secured them their third Record Of The Year award and their ; Hey Whatever, an uptempo reworking of Rainbow Zephyr by Relish! that reached number four; and Obvious, a wistful ballad of unrequited love that debuted at number three.

But disaster struck suddenly for the band. On the eve of Obvious's release, Bryan McFadden announced his intention to depart from the band to spend more time with his family. And five days later on the 9th of March 2004 a press conference was held to inform the public of the decision. It was a massive blow. Less than one month before a tour, one of their most prominent vocalists had thrown in the towel. Rumours spread once again: Bryan had left due to conflict within the band; Westlife were considering breaking up; Bryan's marriage was in trouble.

But the subsequent tour was a huge success, many fans still believing it to be the most impressive of the four tours, and one that has yet to be beaten in terms of it's popularity. While Westlife's career kept climbing, Bryan's floundered. His solo career came in the wake of his eventual divorce with his wife, Kerry Katona (formerly of Atomic Kitten), and rumoured affair with Australian singer Delta Goodrem. He changed his name back to it's original spelling of 'Brian', and released four solo singles under that name, but could not escape the sudden fury that fell upon him by the media in response to his apparent disloyalty to the much-loved Kerry. The first went to number one on the strength of his preceding fame, but the others barely staggered into the top 20.

Still stunned by the departure of Brian McFadden, Westlife scrapped their plans for a duets album, not wanting to be seen as replacing him. Instead, they took the easy route of releasing a Rat Pack inspired album containing covers of Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr, and Bobby Darin standards. No singles were released by the band, instead relying on the recent creation of the official download chart, of which they had secured the first ever official download number one with a live version of Flying Without Wings from the just completed Turnaround tour. All of their downloadable singles charted in the top three, including Smile, Ain't That A Kick In The Head, Fly Me To The Moon, and Beyond The Sea.

At the end of 2005 they released their seventh album Face To Face, which has proven to be their most successful yet. Headlined by their first number one since Bryan's departure, Face To Face outsold previous album Coast To Coast, which had been their most successful. The headlining single, You Raise Me Up, garnered attention and acclaim in Australia and Asia, as well as becoming hugely popular in their home country of Ireland, and in the UK and Europe, for much the same reason as Flying Without Wings: a soaring ballad, powerful vocals, and a slightly unusual arrangement of verses and chorus. It received record of the year, and achieved something that they had been working towards for many years. Their 13th number one. They had more number ones than Madonna, making them the artists with the fourth most number ones in the history of the charts, behind Cliff Richard (14), The Beatles (17), and Elvis Presley (21). Westlife were back to basics, and it was working a treat.

Following You Raise Me Up, Westlife released their 19th single. A duet with Diana Ross, When You Tell Me That You Love reached the number 2 spot during Christmas 2005, behind that year's X-Factor winner. Amazing, their 20th single, was released in February 2006, and debuted at number 3.

Ah, Westlife. They're bloody successful, ain't they?

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